Pandemic perspectives: How deadly virus shaped new era of vaccinology, global collaborations, healthy habits

ByKate Larsen, Luz Pena, and J.R. Stone KGO logo
Tuesday, March 16, 2021
Here's how pandemic helped shape new era of human history
A year into the pandemic, COVID-19 continues to create major challenges for families. But, there have been some silver linings.

SAN FRANCISCO (KGO) -- A year into the pandemic, COVID-19 continues to create major challenges for families. But there have been some silver linings. Scientific breakthroughs and a sea of change in the way doctors collaborate have the changed the world. Even kids are coming away with habits that could help them for years to come, long after the pandemic ends.

New healthy habits

"Water and soap and dry your hands," shouts 4-year-old Alexander B., who has become a hand washing expert.

We asked Alexander, "So when you get home, what's the first thing you do?" Alexander was quick to respond with, "Wash our hands!"

Alexander's mother, Vanessas Rodriguez, says that her son sings his ABC's when he starts scrubbing with soap. "We literally walk in the door and he says, 'Mommy don't forget we have to wash our hands first!' For him it's almost like a plaything and that's how I presented it to him."

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Nine-year-old Kaylan Sommer isn't shy about hand-washing either. He's created his own healthy habits, and doesn't hesitate to put on his mask - one that he leaves on top of candles by the door. "He doesn't like to smell his own breath in the mask nor do I. I actually just smelled one of his masks the other day and it smells really good," said his mom, Julie Giannini Sommer.

Kaylan went on to echo those thoughts saying, "I grab it, I put it on, and sometimes I just leave it on and I forget about it like when I was playing my video game."

And it's not just personal habits that are changing; global medicine is rapidly adapting.

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New scientific era

Historically, world wars and global crises have been a catalyst for major scientific and medical advancement. The pandemic and the resulting vaccines are no exception.

Dr. Paul Offit is a member of the FDA vaccine Advisory Committee and director of the Vaccine Education Center at the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia. In 1980, Dr. Offit started working on the rotavirus vaccine, which is now recommended for all infants.

"So it was 26 years from when we first started, to when there was a vaccine, and that's not atypical, that's about right. This basically was for the SARS-CoV-2 vaccine, a one-year effort." Dr. Offit explained that in January of 2020, "I think you would not have found a scientist on the planet that would have said, 'Yeah, I think that can happen.'"

Kate Larsen: "What does the future hold? Now that we've tackled the COVID vaccine, what's next?"

Dr. Paul Offit: "We've entered a genetic era of vaccinology whether it's messenger RNA or DNA or the so called vectored vaccines, and I think there's just been a lot of activation energy now that will I think launch us into other vaccines that are similar, whether it's a human immunodeficiency virus vaccine or a universal influenza vaccine or better malaria vaccine or better tuberculosis vaccine, we'll see but there's a lot of activation energy now because we have so much data using these genetic approaches."

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Kate Larsen: "What do you see, if anything, as a positive piece to come out of this pandemic?"

Dr. Paul Offit: "I'd like to think this will will engender an international level of collaboration, not just for making vaccines and distributing vaccines, but for surveilling to see whether or not there is the next pandemic, and to make sure we all work together on this. We'll hang together or we'll hang separately. Now more than ever, we have to see ourselves as part of a hole, because if we don't, we're going to suffer."

The collaboration, that Dr. Offit says is so critical, is taking place in the Bay Area and beyond.

New global collaboration

"We study how the virus hijacks our cells during the course of information is being relayed to scientists around the world. They are in turn collecting data based on out information and providing us their data," explained Dr. Nevan Krogan, with UCSF's Department of Quantitative Biosciences Institute.

Dr. Krogan assembled a robust group of scientists from over 400 labs in 42 countries to collaborate on COVID-19 research.

"We are working with the Pasteur Institute in Paris, Mount Sinai in New York, University College London in England and a number of scientist in Africa," he explained.

On a Zoom call, several scientists share their findings every week and compare data from Europe, Africa and the U.S. "The hope would be say 30 years from now, you'll look back. We can say that because of this pandemic, which has been a great tragedy, we have all these great treatments for these diseases because we learned how to work together," Krogan said.

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Krogan says COVID-19 unified the scientific community and created a framework that's better equipped to face future viruses.

Luz Pena: "What's the plan moving forward to continue this collaborate effort not only with COVID-19 but targeting other diseases?"

Dr. Nevan Krogan: "The goal here is to put pressure on funding agencies like NIH, on the leadership both in the state and federal level as well as leaders around the world to get behind these collaborate efforts" and added, "If we approach other diseases like Alzheimer's and Parkinson's and certain cancers with the same sense of urgency that we have attacked COVID-19. Absolutely we will be coming into treatments so much quickly."


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